Set right after 3x11 with a teeny bit of timeline manipulation.

I'm honestly not quite sure how to characterize this fic. Unlike my usual, the focus is not angst and h/c (though there is some, never fear) but more...human connection/emotion I guess?

I have been trying to finish this for months since I wrote down the idea and nothing would come until I sat down, determined to do *something* no matter how bad and somehow it turned out way more beautiful than I had imagined. Sometimes writing just goes where it wills and this time it went somewhere that I found quite touching and rather lovely.

I think Neal's artistic talents and sensibilities are not so often touched on in the fandom (perhaps reflective of the show) which is a bit of a shame as I think there's a lot of potential there.

Anyway, I'm rather proud of this little piece and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

"Not a Raphael—you wouldn't." Neal breathed with quiet horror.

Keller just shrugged, Watch me, Caffrey, and brought the painting down hard on Neal, the wood splintering and canvas ripping into multiple pieces. Neal fought against the darkness that threatened his vision as Keller stood tall and threatening over him,

"First rule of a fight, always go for the weak spot."

Keller lifted his cane and brought it brutally down.

WCWCWCWCWC

The scene was clearing up and Peter surveyed it with satisfaction. Keller had been driven away, handcuffed in the back of a car and Peter had no doubts that he would be out of the picture for a very long time. The medics had left calmly after attending to Keller's bullet wound and, at Peter's instance patching up Neal as well. Neal's injuries were painful but not dangerous; bruises and abrasions, he'd be aching and limping for a while and his vanity would take a hit, but the tight ball of anxiety that had resided in Peter's chest since he had seen his partner laying beaten on the ground had loosened.

All that was left was to go home to Elizabeth, and he was dying to do that.

He turned around, looking for his CI,

"Come on Neal, I need to get home!"

"Over here Peter!" Peter turned and saw the con limping several yards away, picking something—or some things—carefully off the ground. He jogged over,

"We need to go—Neal, what are you doing?"

"You wanna give me a hand with this?" Peter looked down at what Neal had been picking up, shattered pieces of wood and canvas,

"What is this?"

Neal looked up and Peter was startled at the intense distress on the CI's face,

"A Raphael. Keller smashed it." Peter was confused,

"What? Why?"

"He needed a weapon."

"Hold up," Peter picked up a sturdy piece of wood from the frame, examining it with a sinking feeling at Neal's words, "he smashed it on you?"

Neal nodded, picking up a piece of canvas delicately and almost cradling it,

"A Raphael, Peter!" His expression was almost more distraught than before and Peter got the distinct impression that they were not on the same page here.

The painting was heavy and would have done no small damage when hitting a person, but clearly, to the Neal who seemed lost in a fantasy art world of his own, the damage done to him was far less important than the damage done to the painting.

Peter took a breath, biting back a lecture, the medics had said Neal would be fine after all. He put a hand on Neal's shoulder, aware that Neal was genuinely unhappy over the ruined painting.

"Neal," He spoke gently, "this thing is definitely pretty destroyed." Neal looked up,

"No! Peter, I can restore it. Please!" Peter sighed,

"If that's true Neal, if it can be restored, I think that's up to a museum. I don't think anyone will be too happy if you " he looked pointedly at Neal who looked down at the ground, "were to do it."

"It can be restored, Peter, please." Neal was now carefully holding what looked like most of the pieces of the painting, glancing at them almost lovingly and then back up at Peter, his eyes pleading.

Peter sighed heavily, thinking through the situation. Finally he spoke.

"It's Wednesday. After the past few days Hughes will most definitely give me and likely you the rest of the week off. On Monday I want to see that painting on. my. desk. Whatever condition it's in, I won't ask questions. Just as long as it's not worse off." Neal's face lit up,

"Monday. Okay."

He turned toward the car but Peter stopped him with a hand to his shoulder already regretting the decision.

"I need you to promise me Neal, right now, that you won't forge it and keep the real one. Can I trust you to do that?" Neal turned back and looked down at the pieces of the painting with a nod before looking up,

"I promise, Peter. No tricks. You know I don't lie to you, I promise." Peter stood silent for a moment.

"Okay." He said finally. He wasn't sure why, but his gut was telling him to trust this promise.

He turned away and headed toward the car that the agents had left for him,

"Come on Neal, get in the car, I want to see my wife now!"

As it turned out, Peter would see the painting before Monday.

As he had predicted, Hughes had been happy to give both he and Neal the rest of the week off, and he spent several wonderful days with Elizabeth. Holding her close and trailing after her around the house, loath to let her out of his sight for even a few minutes, they slowly reassured themselves—they were safe. By the time Saturday came around El was feeling somewhat smothered. She also noticed the distinct lack of web pages with tracking data pulled up, glances toward cell phones, and casual visits from Neal. She brought up the subject over lunch,

"Are you and Neal going to be okay?"

Peter looked up frowning,

"You know it was because of his actions, lying about the treasure to my face for months, that you got kidnapped." There was anger in his voice. Elizabeth put her hand over his across the table,

"Peter, you can't blame him like that, he didn't kidnap me. Keller did. Don't put it all on Neal." Her voice had grown sharp and Peter's shoulders sagged slightly,

"You're right El, I know. It's just...there's a lot I need to think about. There was trust broken El, and even if he did the right thing in the end I'm struggling with it." Elizabeth smiled sympathetically,

"But will you be okay?" Peter sighed, rubbing a hand down his face,

"Yes." He admitted, "yes, we will be. I don't know if we should be, but we'll...we'll be okay." Elizabeth was silent for a minute,

"Does Neal know that?" Peter was slightly taken aback and searched for words,

"What—why—?" Elizabeth pursed her lips,

"Well I can't imagine you were exactly gentle with him..." Peter remembered with a sudden pang how roughly he had shoved Neal against the wall, and the desperate anger of those terrible hours without El, anger he had that he had taken out on his friend for the most part.

Elizabeth gave a small smile as his lack of answer confirmed her words, "You should go check on him honey. You haven't talked with him in days, and you said he was pretty beaten up by Keller." Her expression was serious and a feeling of guilt settled in Peter's chest.

She was right. Neal had been hurt and he hadn't so much as sent a text to see how he was holding up.

The distinct lack of Neal dropping in over the past few days suddenly became glaringly obvious. He nodded,

"You're right hun. I'll go over to June's after lunch."

"And invite him over for dinner."

Peter sighed,

"Are you sure that's for the best—" Elizabeth's glare cut him off. "Fine."

WCWCWCWC

Peter stuck to his word and one o'clock found him knocking at Neal's door. There was no answer, which Peter found curious. June had confirmed Neal had not left his room most of the weekend and when Neal took a long time answering the door he was usually hiding something. Peter knocked again and waited, but the door didn't open. It had definitely been too long and there wasn't so much as an answering call to hold on or that Neal was coming.

Dark fears of concussion-induced comas and Neal laying for days in need of help as Peter ignored him came flooding terrifyingly into Peter's mind. He reached to open the door, his heart in his mouth.

The sight that greeted him was a sharp contrast to the dark fears in his imagination.

Neal stood in front of an easel, painting peacefully.

There was nothing particularly new about the picture, Peter had walked in on Neal painting more than a few times. He would barge in, eager to discuss some theory or lead, the CI would look up from his work with a friendly smile, put down his brushes and neatly stow away his art supplies as he conversed with his handler.

He never painted with Peter in the room.

Yet this time was different markedly. Neal, didn't look up, didn't even speak, he clearly had no idea anyone had been knocking and certainly wasn't aware that Peter had just frantically entered.

Neal's expression was intent, expertly focused as his hands moved over the canvas. But it was the open, peaceful, joy on his friend's face was the most startling part of entire scene. There was an almost childlike openness in Neal's expression that was so many miles from the usual sauve and cool front the man put forward every day that the agent just stared, mouth hanging slightly open.

Neal hummed as he painted. Absentmindedly, under his breath he was singing a tune that Peter felt he'd heard sometime before but couldn't quite pinpoint.

Peter felt suddenly and intensely self-conscious as he observed the entire scene.

There was something...intimate about it that he felt his presence intruded on. It was something he didn't think he should be seeing—on multiple levels.

Neal's complete lack of awareness about Peter's presence felt wrong. His utter lack of masquerade, pretense, or front of any kind was unnerving. The Neal that Peter knew was always calculating, adjusting, and reacting to the cues of others—often completely unconsciously turning himself constantly into what he felt they expected. But alone...he was just a person. Peter felt uncomfortably like he was looking at his partner in a way Neal would have never allowed, stripped down and exposed.

The glow of happiness on Neal's face and his pure focus on his work gave another layer of intimacy, making the agent feel that he had simultaneously walked in on Neal having a tender moment with a lover.

It was a rare form of his friend and Peter knew he would never have seen it except by accident.

He had wondered briefly in the past before why Neal always put down his work when Peter came, why Peter had never seen him in the act of painting, but had assumed it was due to artistic snobbery or something of that sort.

It made more sense now.

An odd thought spread through Peter's mind and he knew with a sudden, strange surety that he couldn't dislodge: no one had ever seen this Neal Caffrey before.

This was something beautiful, private, protected, and cherished, something he knew Neal had never shown to anyone.

Peter wondered for a fleeting moment if he had better try to forget the scene he clearly had no right to see, his conscience would say yes, but there was something so beautiful about it that this thought flew away before it even became fully formed.

He couldn't help a moment of curiosity and it took only another step into the room to see what was on the easel.

A smile spread across his face as he saw it—the Raphael that had so devastated Neal with it's destruction. It had been expertly restored—put back together in some way that Peter had no expertise in—and Neal was carefully painting over the flaws, so lovingly, so perfectly, that Peter had no doubts that the restored painting would look no different from the original.

Art had never particularly excited Peter. It was nice to look at, sure, but he had never understood the draw of it, the price tags, or the fuss of it all. He was sure painting was a nice relaxation for those who liked it, and yeah, it was nice to look at once and a while, he'd seen a few pieces that he wouldn't mind hanging up once or twice, but he had never truly understood it.

In a moment, all of that changed.

As he stood silently, watching Neal's hands glide steadily, expertly, tenderly over the canvas, seeing his friend transformed before his eyes, his heart gave a sudden strange sort of clenching jump and he realized with sharp clarity—he was watching a master at work.

Neal, his joy, his carful strokes, the colors of the Raphael, the whole scene—painting, artist, and emotion—was vibrating, overflowing with beauty. Peter was surprised to find that a lump had risen in his throat.

If this was how Neal felt about art...Peter understood.

If a picture could be painted, capturing even the smallest essence of the scene in that room—it would deserve millions as a price tag, Peter thought. It would deserve every bit of the fuss that he had never understood before.

Peter snapped suddenly out of his mesmerized contemplation. He had been standing in Neal's apartment for no more than a minute but his conscience really couldn't let him keep watching Neal with the man having no idea that he was there.

"Neal." He placed a gentle hand on Neal's shoulder, "That's beautiful."

A quiet but sharp intake of breath was the only sign the CI gave that he had been startled.

"You think so?" Neal turned around with a grin, his expression closed off and deflecting. "I wouldn't have thought it was your style." His eyes widened slightly as he noticed the trace of tears in Peter's eyes. His expression grew soft, not unlike how it had been only moments before. "Oh." He said quietly.

Both men were silent for an eternity of a moment.

"Is this—" Peter finally gesture toward the painting," —I mean, art...is this what it's always like for you?" He felt frustrated, awkward, stumbling, unable to ask what he was trying so hard to understand.

Neal seemed to understand though, tipping his head to one side and looking down thoughtfully.

"Not every piece of art, no. Some I dislike, some are pretty—nice to look at, aesthetically pleasing—but some of them...and when I paint myself...yes." Peter didn't answer, just nodded and looked away. "How long were you watching?" Neal's tone was gently curious but Peter looked up guiltily,

"Not long, you didn't answer the door and I got worried so I..." He trailed away and rubbed at his neck, "are you upset?"

Neal smiled, amused by the agent's anxiety.

The guilt and the very fact that Peter asked the question showed just how much he had understood about what he had just seen. It was more than Neal would have given the down-to-earth FBI agent credit for, perhaps unfairly.

No, Neal wasn't upset—though he wasn't sure why.

With anyone else, it would have felt humiliatingly invasive, a violation of something precious to him. In the moments before he had turned around that was exactly how it had felt as he deflected Peter's comment with shallow humor.

But when he had turned, and seen in Peter's eyes a feeling that Neal had only ever felt in his own...

The moment had clearly done something to his friend, something that couldn't ever be described but that Neal understood and had felt before.

Something that changed you when you felt it for the first time—and Peter had felt it for the first time.

He had felt it because of Neal.

This shared moment of beauty was something special. Neal felt sure Peter would never talk about again but would always, always remember it.

There was a look in Peter's eyes, as he regarded at Neal, an understanding and respect that Neal had never seen before.

He would never have chosen to allow Peter to see those moments, to be privy to the feelings that Neal cherished so deeply and personally, but now—Neal was not upset that he had.

"No." Neal replied simply. "It's alright." He turned and added one last stroke to the painting before putting down the brush and beginning to wash up.

Peter noticed the stiffness to Neal's movements as he walked to the sink, as if he were intentionally trying not to limp. Calculating, adjusting, reacting ; a mask, pretense, a front— this was the Neal that Peter was used to, always unconsciously being what he expected others expected. Peter had dug beneath all that before, but the moments were rare. Peter had just been given another piece of the puzzle that was Neal Caffrey, a piece that had turned into something beautiful for him as well.

"So you were just stopping by?" Neal spoke over the sound of the water and Peter read the uneasiness behind the casual tone—right—Elizabeth's kidnapping, Keller...after a weekend of no contact Neal was still unsure where they stood.

"Actually, I was coming to check in and let you know that El insists you come over for dinner. That is," he gestured to the painting, "if you have the time."

"Well," Neal grinned over his shoulder, his posture relaxing slightly at Peter's words, "I have all of tomorrow to make my Monday deadline so I think I could manage it."

"Good, because El might have slaughtered me if I came home without you. How ya holding up?"

"I'm fine." Not a word about the rainbow of bruising that was hidden by the uncharacteristically loose t-shirt Neal wore, the visible scrapes and abrasions on his arms, or the hidden limp.

But, Peter sighed to himself, that was Neal, wasn't it?

No matter how hidden and calculated Neal could be, there was always that hidden gentle sweetness, that love of goodness and beauty that had startled Peter to find in a criminal.

Neal Caffrey wasn't just someone you cared about, he was someone who showed you the world in a new way, someone who changed you if you let him.

For better or for worse—certainly for better this time, Peter had glimpsed a bit of the world the way Neal Caffrey saw it.

It was a very beautiful place.

Neal's identity as an artist is not the form we most often see him in, either in the show or fanfic so there was a lot to play with here. Thoughts? Thanks for reading!